Islam in Jamaica

Though Islam has never taken deep roots in Jamaica, it has had a long-standing presence on the island.

With thousands of enslaved persons from Africa brought to Jamaica for more than three centuries, some, perhaps many, must have been Muslims.  Islam had had an early presence in West Africa, from where most enslaved persons in the Americas originated.

Estimates are that as many as 16 percent of indentured workers from India who came to Jamaica after full emancipation in 1838 were Muslims. It is possible too that, while most Lebanese who came here in the latter half of the 19th century were Christians, some of these Arabs may have been Muslims.

Muslim Hussay Festival in Westmoreland, Jamaica (Photo courtesy of the National Library of Jamaica)

While the evidence is not conclusive, there are traces suggesting Islamic presence in Jamaica from the time of the Spanish occupation of the island, which began in 1494 and ended in 1655 when the British took the island by force from Spanish control.

Jamaica’s official website for visitors states confidently:

Islam has been practiced in Jamaica since the 1500s, when African slaves brought the religion during the African Slave Trade. The religion was practiced more widely however after the abolition of slavery in 1834 with the arrival of Indian laborers.

In 2000, Sultana Afroz, a Muslim from Bangladesh and a lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, implied that at least some Jamaican maroons were Muslims. “‘As-Salamu-’alaikum,’ the Islamic greeting in Arabic, meaning ‘peace be upon you,’ continued to be the official greeting among the Maroon Council members in Mooretown, Portland, Jamaica.”

In 2001, Afroz wrote that “[c]ontemporaneous to the autonomous Muslim Maroon ummah, hundreds of thousands of Mu’minun (the Believers of the Islamic faith) of African descent worked as slaves on the plantations in Jamaica.”

She made the remarkable claim that Sam Sharpe was Muslim and the Rebellion he led was Islamic jihad:

Jihad became the religious and political ideology of these crypto-Muslims, who became members of the various denominational nonconformist churches since being sprinkled with the water by the rectors of the parishes. Despite the experience of the most cruel servitude and the likelihood of a swift and ruthless suppression of the rebellion, the spiritually inspired Mu’minun collectively responded to the call for an island-wide jihad in 1832. Commonly known as the Baptist Rebellion, the Jihad of 1832 wrought havoc of irreparable dimension to the plantation system and hastened the Emancipation Act of 1833.

She said, “the dhikir, ‘Allahu Akbar,’ declaring the Greatness of Allah, still throbbed in the hearts of many of the former Muslim slaves when the Indian indentured Muslims first landed in Jamaica in 1845.” She made reference to “the many freed African Muslim slaves in the midst of great social, economic and political uncertainties following emancipation.”

Afroz further asserted that “with the arrival of the indentured Muslims from India, the peaceful revival of Islam in Jamaica began.”

Gordon Mullings said Afroz’s claims rest on a “shaky historical and cultural foundation.” Furthermore:

[T]he overwhelming historical and anthropological evidence is that our “crypto-Muslim” African ancestors were in fact predominantly and very actively animistic, and that Islam first gained a significant institutionalized presence in the region with the settlement of Indian indentured laborers in the mid-nineteenth century.  As for the concept that the Maroons were Moorish/Islamic to the point of constituting an Islamic community under Islamic law (i.e. an ummah), one should start by considering the fact that they have been famous, from Spanish times, for Jerk Pork — a major Islamic no-no.

Maureen Warner-Lewis, a UWI professor, said Afroz was engaging in a revisionism of Jamaica’s history. Her assertions were bedeviled by “inaccuracies of data and faults of argumentation.” In addition:

There are glaring disjunctures between the sweeping claims advanced and the paucity of the evidence proffered, while logic is defied by extravagance of assertion, leaps in assumptions, and glib transitions from probability to dogmatism.

She said Afroz employed “doubtful logic to the production of questionable historiography.” Among other things, she inflates “the number of enslaved Muslims in Jamaica” and she “distorts comments made by some nineteenth-century commentators.”

Warner-Lewis did not dispute early or longstanding Muslim presence on the island. Rather, she accused Afroz of overstating the case and for misreading history.

Some of these enslaved Muslims were literate. Warner-Lewis declared:

The religious ideas of these Muslims as well as the writing skills in Arabic which several of them possessed had in fact caught the attention of European planters, among them Jamaican-based Bryan Edwards (1819). In fact their numeracy and writing skills allowed them to secure jobs as storekeepers and tally clerks on estates.

Furthermore, “Magistrate R. R. Madden of Jamaica alerted anti-slavery and Africa colonisation interests in London to the Arabic autobiography (1830s) of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, otherwise called Edward Donlan in Jamaica.”

Writing in 1922, Martha Warren Beckwith and Helen Heffron Roberts reported that descendants of Indian indentured workers in Jamaica observed the Hussay festival, which commemorates the martyrdom of Hasan and Hussain, sons of Ali. On the final day of this festival, a procession of mourners carried a tomb made from bamboo and colored paper:

As most Jamaica Indians are from Bombay (Mumbai), the Hussay follows closely the form of celebration described from that locality. It is regularly celebrated at different times in different parts of the island, the north side holding its Hussay in January or February, Vere in July or early August.

The two writers noted that the Jamaican government forbade Hussay processions in both Kingston and Savannah La Mar.

Mosque in Kingston, Jamaica

Currently, only about 5,000 Muslims are in Jamaica out of a population of 2.7 million. There are five mosques in Kingston, Spanish Town, Albany and Port Maria in St. Mary, and Three Miles in Westmoreland. Other places of worship (masjids) are at Santa Cruz, Morant Bay and Negril. They have two basic schools.

Several factors have been put forward as to why the presence of Islam on the Caribbean island is negligible, despite its long history there. In Islam Outside the Arab World, Ingvar Svanberg and David Westerlund asserted:

After the abolition of slavery, Muslims either converted to Christianity, or went back to Africa or to other places in Latin America where there were Muslims, or hid the fact that they were Muslims. Until the last quarter of the present [20th] century, Islam was almost unknown in Jamaica outside the small indentured East Indian Muslim community.

The Islamic Council of Jamaica, formed in 1981, seeks to unite Jamaican Muslims, comprising mainly persons of African and Indian ancestry, and some Arabs.

Among the more well-known Jamaican Muslims are musical artistes Jimmy Cliff and the late Prince Buster, who died in 2016.

Eron Henry’s article, Broadening the mind, freeing the spirit, is under consideration for the 2017 NUHA Foundation Blogging Prize. He is author of Reverend Mother, a novel.

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

A Visitors paradise

The rolling hills of the Jamaica Blue Mountain range

Jamaica led the way in the development of Caribbean tourism. Blessed with lush forests, breathtaking mountains, indigenous species of birds, insects and plants, and beautiful white sand beaches, Jamaica, from very early, became a magnet for travelers.

Sibbald David Scott, writing in 1875 on his trip to Jamaica, described what he saw upon approaching Kingston Harbor while on the ship’s deck. “The aspect of the island is beautiful—almost everything looks beautiful under a powerful sunlight…. On looking upwards there are such hills, or rather mountains, clothed to their summits in luxuriant verdure.”

In the foothills of the Blue Mountains, just below Gordon Town, Scott said “nature was in full luxuriance here: so rich a prospect my eyes had never feasted on before.” As they traveled on, “the air feels purer and cooler as we ascend.” The treacherous but spellbinding journey through small, winding paths and close to steep precipices had him declaring, “It is in truth a garden of Eden run wild.”

Edith Blake, in her article, “The Highlands of Jamaica” for the North American Review in 1892, opened her account by declaring, “What most surprised me after a residence in Jamaica long enough to enable me to form an opinion of the climate all the year round, was its comparative coolness.” Speaking of the higher elevations, she said, “The climate of these uplands is perfect, resembling the most lovely English summer weather, with a fresh, exhilarating feeling in the air that recalls Switzerland and the Alps.”

Alfred Leader, who published Through Jamaica with a Kodak in 1907, echoed Blake’s sentiments. He called Bog Walk “a little Switzerland,” described it as “entrancing,” and declared “it the most attractive place in the Island, and a photographer’s paradise.” Of the famous Bog Walk Gorge, he said, “the river enters a magnificent gorge—its massive fern-decked rock walls rising on the right almost perpendicularly about nine hundred feet, the water rushing along the rocky bed below.”

Jamaica International Exhibition

Jamaica International Exhibit, January-May 1891

The Jamaica International Exhibition from January 27 to May 2 in 1891, was an important contributor to Jamaica becoming a tourism destination.  Jamaica’s governor, Henry Blake, said the exhibition would be “an event of very great importance for the West Indies generally, and one that must have a singular interest for the United States, with its many millions of colored citizens.” England’s Prince of Wales attended the opening.

Conceived in 1889, the exhibition was planned in part to mark the 50th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, though that occurred in 1838; and to increase and improve the marketability of Jamaica’s products.

Governor Blake said the original intention was to hold a local exhibition in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, and then to make it part of the Colonial Exhibit in London in May 1891. The Jamaican support was so great however, and the enthusiasm level so high, that the Jamaican event itself became an international exhibition.

Significantly, while the government gave its backing, it offered no guarantees. There was no paid staff. The work was done entirely by volunteers. “Architects and engineers came forward, designed the buildings free of charge, and undertook to carry out their erection,” Governor Blake said. “Everybody with technical knowledge on any subject freely offered his services to the committee.”

Support came from local donors with three providing guarantees of £15,000, or about £1.74 million in today’s money. In all, £30,000 worth of guarantees were received or £3.48 million in current money. Much of the PR work was done through the churches and schools to get the involvement of small farmers and rural folk.

Parts of the island underwent an overhaul. Bridges were built in St. Thomas and Portland. The Public Works Department took charge of and upgraded various roads. The Railway Company expanded its fleet and tracks. Hotel construction was encouraged through the Jamaica Hotels Law, passed in 1890. According to the Jamaica Tourist Board:

The Government offered to guarantee the capital at 3 percent interest, for all approved hotel construction and maintenance of approved hotels and also that all building materials and furniture required for such hotels be admitted into the island duty free.  As a result several hotels were built not only for the Exhibition, but for those who, having been introduced to Jamaica, would come again and bring others.

Among the hotels built because of government incentives was the majestic Myrtle Bank Hotel, the Queens, Hotel Rio Cobre, the Moneague Hotel, the Titchfield Hotel and the Mandeville Hotel.

The Exhibit venue itself was on what is now the Wolmer’s Girls School.

Different forms of agricultural products, farm animals such as horses, cattle, sheep, goats and bees, and items made by artisans, silversmiths, craftsmen and craftswomen, were on display. “There is nothing which you grow or make which will not find a place in the exhibition,” the governor said in his invitation sent around the island. Some 90,000 copies of his message were distributed island wide.

More than 300,000 persons attended the exhibition, with between 13,000 and 14,000 present at the closing session that ended with fireworks. The Jamaica International Exhibition brought a boom to the Jamaican economy. The financial year, March 31, 1891, ended with a handsome surplus of £172,000.

Government incentives
The next phase of Jamaican and Caribbean tourism development occurred in the 1920s when the industry became more formally organized. The government established the Tourist Trade Development Board in 1922, which was merged with the Tourist Trade Development Board in 1926. Government spent annual sums to promote the country as a tourism destination, collaborating with hotels and shipping companies. This led to a sharp rise in the number of rooms available, and Montego Bay on the northwest coast of the island became a favored destination.

The 1930s saw further growth. A travel tax was imposed to help finance promotion. Political problems in nearby Cuba led visitors to choose Jamaica as an alternative vacation destination. Airlines such as Pan Am expanded and improved international air travel, which increased even further after the end of World War II.

With tourism now big business, the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) was formed in 1955, displacing the Tourist Trade Development Board. JTB offices were opened in major cities such as New York, Miami, Chicago and London. The Jamaica Hotels Aids Law of 1963 allowed duty free importation of materials for the construction of new and the expansion of existing hotels.

Some wealthy and well-known personalities, such as the Hollywood actor Errol Flynn and British author, Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond franchise, bought property in Jamaica and lived at least part time on the island. Flynn, who owned the Titchfield Hotel in Portland in eastern Jamaica, helped to develop the tourism industry in that part of the island. It was he who popularized river rafting on the Rio Grande as an attraction for visitors after witnessing banana farmers transporting their products on bamboo rafts from their farms down river to the port.

Negril Beach in western Jamaica

Today, tourism is Jamaica’s largest single business. More than 50 percent of the country’s income is earned from tourism, which employs some 25 percent of workers. Massive hotels now grace the north coast from Negril in the west to Ocho Rios in the east. Other large properties are slated for development, with the largest yet, Harmony Cove in Trelawny to be built on 1,400 acres, still on the drawing board. A mega resort and casino, Harmony Cove is projected to have as many as 5,000 rooms.

It could be argued that though Jamaica gets some three million overseas visitors per year, more than the country’s population, the majority do not get to see the most beautiful parts. Restricting their stays to the coasts where they laze on the beaches, they do not see or experience what so enthralled Sibbald David Scott, Edith Blake, Alfred Leader and others in the early days: the lush forests, the breathtaking mountains, meandering rivers and invigorating mineral springs.  Perhaps that is just as well. Massive crowds at such venues and locations may just water down the experience.

Small country, big punch

Jamaican Bob Marley, an internationally recognized global super star

Jamaica punches way above its weight. An island of about 2.8 million people, its name and influence reaches far and deep.

There are the well-known facts. Jamaica gifted the world with reggae music and before that, ska; the Rastafarian name and culture is widely known, largely due to the intertwining of Rastafarianism and reggae music, a global phenomenon; Jamaica is a track and field sprinting powerhouse and, next to the United States, has the highest number of sprinting medals, of all colors, among Olympians; Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee is among the most prized, and expensive, in the world, fetching upwards of US$30 a pound.

There are the lesser known facts. Jamaica was the first country to impose economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa; Jamaica was the first country in the tropics to enter the IOC Winter Olympics; Jamaica was the first colony England acquired by conquest rather than settlement; Ian Fleming wrote 10 of his James Bond novels in Jamaica, where he had taken up residence; Jamaica has the highest percentage of women managers globally; Jamaicans are the largest group of American immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean; during the 1970s and early 1980s about 15 percent of the population left the country.

There are the facts that are almost never known: Jamaica has more multiple (two or more) live births than anywhere else in the world (lots of twins and quite a few triplets); Jamaica is the first country to sign a Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria grant agreement; Jamaica was the first British colonial territory to establish a postal service, in the year 1688; Jamaica and Mauritania are the only countries whose flags do not share any of the colors of the American flag; it was the first country in the Caribbean to have a website,, launched in 1994; chocolate milk was invented in Jamaica; 200 species of wild orchids grow in Jamaica, 73 of which are unique to the country; it is claimed that AT&T, the American company, copied Jamaica’s telephone system.

And there are the facts that are mostly forgotten. Jamaica was the first country in the Western world to construct a railway, even before the United States; Jamaica was the first commercial producer of bananas in the Western hemisphere; Jamaica gave birth to Caribbean tourism; the Manchester Golf Club in Jamaica, established in 1868, is the oldest in the western hemisphere; Jamaica, it is alleged, had electricity and running water before the United States.

Bob Marley
I never knew how big a deal Bob Marley was until my graduate studies in the US in the 1990s. Upon learning I’m Jamaican, students would invariably mention Bob as the one identifying feature of the country they know. His name and fame has not diminished. At a global event in Hawaii a few years ago, I and a Bangladeshi, in our quest to find a food court, solicited the help of a kind young woman whom we met during the search. Recognizing we were not Hawaiians, and likely not Americans, she asked us where we were from. “Bangladesh,” my companion said. She puzzled a look, “Where is that?” After he informed her that Bangladesh is in Asia, I said to her, “Well I’m sure you’ve never heard of my country, Jamaica.” She expressed surprise at my ignorance. “Of course, Bob Marley.”

Bangladesh has a population of almost 170 million people, the eighth most populous country in the world. Jamaica, with 2.8 million, is ranked at 139.

That Marley has made a significant, unique, and decisive contribution has been supported by scholarship. Masa-Hide Kato, in a doctoral dissertation done at the University of Hawaii, found Marley to be a revolutionary figure “in the age of global transnational capitalism.” Marley’s music and message, he argues, was part of the “trans-popular culture” that was part of the decolonization process that challenged “the age of global transnational capitalism.”

Harold Preston Coleman’s 1998 PhD dissertation at the University of Iowa finds Marley to be a charismatic authority “within the social and cultural milieu of the period during which (he) was recording and performing 1973-1981,” and even after his death.

And Grant Aubrey Farred’s 1997 Princeton University PhD dissertation declares Marley on “Organic and vernacular intellectual” in the struggle for “black liberation and political independence.” Farred’s claim that Marley made an important contribution to the struggle for “black liberation and political independence” is of course not related solely to Jamaica. It is well known that Marley’s music and message served as an inspiration to various independent movements in Africa in the 1970s, most notably in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well as struggles in Mozambique and Angola.

Marcus Garvey heavily influenced Africans in Africa and the Diaspora

It need not be said that Marcus Garvey is deeply revered by Africans and elements in the African American community. A Ghanaian immigrant in the US felt, upon meeting me, that he was in the presence of someone special, not because of me of course, but because of Garvey. “Africa would be very different today if we had followed Garvey,” he said in reverential tones.

Jamaicans are everywhere. It is an arresting experience, a very pleasant one, to deplane at an airport in Dubai or in Singapore and one of the first things you see in the arrival terminal is a huge photograph of Usain Bolt.

A group of us Jamaicans were walking in Amsterdam when we saw a fellow, on his cell phone, speaking, in not very soft tones, in clear Jamaican lingo. We all walked up to him. “Whey yah do yah so?” We asked. Ending his call, he recalled for us his family’s journey from St. Thomas in Jamaica to Coventry in England to Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

At an event in Jordan, (Jordan!) I noticed a woman on the outskirts of the audience, trying to get the best camera angle of my Jamaican colleague, the main speaker. Accompanied by her daughter, she made sure to find us at the end of the ceremony. Having not a clue who the speaker was, she discerned, upon hearing his voice, that it must be a Jamaican. She had been living in Jordan for more than 20 years, where her daughter was born.

We attended meetings in Panama whereupon one of the Ecuadorian delegates made it a point to introduce herself. Her grandfather, she said, got converted, many decades earlier, under the preaching of a Jamaican at a railway station in Ecuador, a Spanish speaking South American country. That fateful encounter changed the course of her family’s trajectory and history.

We were at an event in Havana, Cuba. Our translator had a very English maiden name, “Lawrence,” whereupon we made known our curiosity. “My father’s family is from Jamaica,” she said, explaining that she still has relatives in St. Mary.

We likkle but we tallawah. We small but we big. We are a dot in the ocean that has sent ripples across the globe. In boxing parlance, we are of featherweight size but punch like a super middleweight.

A very special Christmas

Pitchy Patchy, one of the Jamaica Junkanoo characters

For enslaved persons in the Caribbean, Christmas was about the only respite they had in the calendar year. For that reason alone, Christmas has always been a big deal in Jamaica, going back centuries.

Christmas was the occasion of Jamaica’s most consequential protest movement, the Sam Sharpe Rebellion, otherwise known as the Baptist War.

Sam Sharpe, it is alleged, was convinced the queen of England had given freedom to the enslaved but it was being withheld by the Jamaican colonialists. He led a sit-down strike during Christmas 1831, which turned violent after the planter class responded with brutal force. By May 1832 more than 500 of the enslaved, including Sharpe, were executed, but the entire affair hastened the end of slavery, which was abolished by law in 1834 and overturned by 1838.

So, Christmas has been etched deep into the psyche of Jamaicans – the only period of real respite and break they had during slavery, and the beginning of the most important protest that led to freedom from slavery.

No wonder, therefore, that Jamaicans take Christmas very seriously. The celebration begins at least a week before December 25, and really ends only after January 1. Never, ever, seek to conduct any serious business between these dates. Other than financial institutions and retail stores, shops, markets and street side vendors, not much happens otherwise. It is time to let one’s hair down and let loose.

It is perhaps rightly termed “silly season,” for persons do crazy stuff. They drive faster and more recklessly, drink far more and much earlier in the day, and spend what they do not have. That is the time of year Jamaicans go into debt, and it is the time of year that you would want to get your “partner draw” to get spending money.

And this is actively encouraged. As a young man, just shortly out of high school, I worked in the bank for a short while. At Christmastime, I carried home far more liquor than I knew what to do with, all offered by bank clients. And I was a mere bank clerk! What was a teetotaler 19-year-old, newly baptized into the church and not knowing much about drinking, to do with seven bottles of expensive liquor (expensive for me at least), including Jonnie Walker Black and some well-aged, Appleton Reserve Blend?

My father told us this story, which I’m sure is apocryphal. He saw an acquaintance after the new year and asked him, “How was the Christmas?” The man said it was the best Christmas he had ever had. “I was drunk from Christmas Eve right through to New Year’s Day.”

Loving Christmas

A Jamaica Christmas Grand Market scene

But I must confess. Like the typical Jamaican, I absolutely love Christmas. The colors, the sounds, the vibes. Nothing beats Christmas in Jamaica. To really know it, feel it, experience it, one must attend Grand Market on Christmas Eve night. In most towns and cities, shoppers (revelers?) walk the streets in their hundreds and in their thousands, vendors spread their wares bazaar-style in the open on sidewalks and on pavements, and people come out in their funniest, or nicest, or sexiest casual outfits. It is at Grand Market you will meet persons you have not seen in years, in decades, and you catch up on old times. You walk a hundred paces and you meet up on another old friend, or classmate, or former coworker.

A Jamaica Gleaner report in 1866 reported on one such market scene in Kingston. “The market this year was numerously attended, by the beauty and fashion of the city. Long before dawn it was thronged with persons felicitating each other on the happy return of the season.”

Christmas is family time. When your relatives who have moved away and live overseas or in other Jamaican towns and cities visit, bringing gifts and goodies, and when the most sumptuous and expensive meal of the year is cooked and served at home.

People who live in rural areas raised goats and pigs and prized chickens to be slaughtered and cooked at Christmastime. A virtual feast. In many homes, it is the only occasion when certain china and silverware are used during the year.

It was the one time in the year when my mother and Mrs. Small would bake, whipping up more than half a dozen Christmas cakes, with us children helping to mix the batter. The prize? Being able to lick the spoons and the basins and the buckets in which the batter was mixed.

A revered tradition has lost popularity, but I gather is still practiced in some communities – caroling. Early in the morning, from as early as 5:00 or 5:30, church folk walk the community and sing carols, stopping before various residences and singing in loud and exuberant cadences, sometimes provocatively so, knowing that the occupants were not particularly welcoming of the predawn intrusion. A tradition that continues, especially in the older, mainline, more traditional churches, is Christmas morning worship service.

And of course, there were the Junkanoo bands of various colorful characters that would parade through the streets, playing musical instruments, dancing and prancing. According to Nadya-Kaye Phillips, “this band of comical, and sometimes scary, characters dates back to the days of slavery, when it was one of the few festivities that was allowed on plantations.”

While there is dispute as to the origin, some researchers credit Junkanoo to the Igbo people from out of West Africa, a view given credence by the practice of Junkanoo in Jamaica, Bahamas and parts of Virginia in the United States, where there were significant presence of Igbo people and their descendants.

Children were deathly scared of these Junkanoo characters. Pitchy Patchy, Police Man, Belly Woman, and especially Horse Head with his lance. Some Junkanoo bands included the Royal Court, caricatures of the British Royal family.

 Michael Scott, writing in the early 1800s, said of the Junkanoo:

Their character hovers somewhere between that of a harlequin and a clown, as they dance about, and thread through the negro groups, quizzing the women and slapping the men; and at Christmas time, the grand negro carnival, they don’t confine their practical jokes to their own colour, but take all manner of comical liberties with the whites equally with their fellow bondsmen.

Jamaica’s Christmas has always been special. This is neither new nor novel. In the Falmouth Gazette in January 1882, a visitor to the island made the following observation of Jamaica at Christmastime:

I was most agreeably surprised to see, instead of a crowd of roughs, an immense gathering of people of all classes and hues, such as I had never in all my travels in many countries seen before. It was, in truth, a real Carnival, eclipsing, for splendour and order, and kindly displays of earnest good feelings, any similar gathering I had met in dear England, or in France, Italy, Germany, or America.

The depressing story of a country’s most famous burial ground


One is not sure how many countries have a cemetery that holds the level of notoriety as the May Pen Cemetery in Jamaica. Yes, the United States has Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, just outside Washington, DC; France has Père-Lachaise in Paris; there is Highgate Cemetery in London, England; and the cemetery at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

Some cemeteries resonate with deep meaning, including those mentioned above as the burial ground of the famous and the brave, as well as those associated with particularly tragic events such as the Jewish Holocaust. But the May Pen Cemetery in Jamaica is an enigma.

Back in the day, May Pen Cemetery was the main burial ground for citizens of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, and a number of well-known and even famous Jamaicans are buried there. A source described it as “one of the oldest public cemeteries in the English speaking Caribbean in which persons of all nationality are interred.”

Notable personalities buried there include pioneering Jamaican musician and trombonist, Don Drummond. But as a Jamaican newspaper story stated a few years ago, “May Pen Cemetery, one of Jamaica’s largest and oldest, has fallen upon hard times.” The parlous state of the cemetery is demonstrated by reports that Drummond’s “exact grave site cannot be located.” Imagine, the grave of one of Jamaica’s most important musicians in its most famous cemetery is lost!

What is now May Pen Cemetery, in an area once known as Littleworth, was used, among other things, for horse racing. In about 1804, horse racing was taken to Knutsford Park, which was in turn replaced by Caymanas Park in the middle of the 20th century. Knutsford Park has since been transformed into Jamaica’s main business district, New Kingston.

According to the Jamaica History Weebly website, “horse racing was among a variety of sports authorised by Governor’s patent to be held every year at Littleworth as far back as 1718.” Other activities held at the venue included “Cockfighting, Bullbaiting, Cudgelling, Playing for hats. Dancing for Knots, Wrestling for Belts, Troll-Madam, Coits, Leaping, Pitching the Bar, the Raffling Plate.”

Early editions of the Handbook of Jamaica, first published in the late 19th century, stated that the “property was purchased in 1851 with a sum of money voted by the Legislature for the purpose of providing a new burial ground for the parish of Kingston.”

Law 21 of 1874 formalized the management of the cemetery and a board was created for that purpose, “subject to the power of the Governor to make regulations and special orders.” The Superintendent of Cemetery, who had operational responsibility for the burial ground, earned a handsome £120 per year.

The same 1874 law divided the cemetery among various Christian and other religious traditions, with the largest portion given to the Anglicans. “This law further provides for the assignment of portions of the burial ground to the several religious denominations,” the Handbook of Jamaica recorded.

Among the church groups were the Roman Catholics, Wesley, United Methodists, Congregationalists, United Presbyterians and the Salvation Army. Two Baptist congregations in the city, East Queen Street Baptist Church and the Native Baptists (Lyle’s Chapel) were accorded small portions.

There were the Burial Ground for the Parish (Anglican) Church, Gardner’s Ground for the London Missionary Society, Cow Pen Ground for the Wesleyan Methodist, Griffith’s Ground for the United Methodist Free Church, Pinnock’s Ground for the Wesleyan Society, Roach’s Ground for Baptists and the Native Baptist Chapel Ground.

The Spanish and Portuguese Jews Ground and the German Jews Ground were also designated.

Importantly, a section was the Pauper Ground, for the burial of the poor and indigent. There was even a section for victims of cholera, which affected Jamaica periodically back then, the largest outbreak occurring in the early 1850s.

By March 1905, figures show that 1,369 persons were buried at the May Pen Cemetery. The overwhelming majority, some 844, were paupers. The Church of England (Anglicans) had 422, Roman Catholics were next with 20, Baptists having 18, and the Presbyterian Church of Jamaica with 10. All the others had single digits. According to the records, there was one “Mahomedan.”

Apparently, your religion, your status and your class follow you in death!

Nowadays, May Pen Cemetery is a shadow of its former glorious self and not even paupers wish to be buried there. How and why this has come to pass is not much of a mystery. The rich, the elites, the well to do and most of the middleclass have long left Kingston for the higher climes of St. Andrew. Their departure left the parish of Kingston, the heart of the city, largely as the abode of the poor and the struggling. Once sought-after neighborhoods have since become synonymous with decay and crime. New residential areas arose as a result of land capture and squatting and the attendant social ills that often result.

All this had its own impact on important landmarks of Kingston such as May Pen Cemetery. Maintenance and upkeep ended. Churches and the city’s government reneged on their responsibilities. Couples often do unmentionable things on its tombs. It is the home of the homeless, where it is a convenient if haunting refuge. Thieves smash tombs and steal their contents; apparently, major targets for these thieves being gold and items for the illegal scrap metal trade.

In March 2016, the Jamaican government announced plans to renovate the old burial ground “to encourage and facilitate increased use of the more than 200-acre property, of which 130 acres have been utilised for burials.” There is hope for the “restoration of graves which have been vandalized.” A special committee “has been established to spearhead development of the plans.”

More persons, in different parts of the world, are expressing greater interest in their ancestry. Burial grounds are an important source of information and are being embraced as sacred elements of that legacy. May Pen Cemetery is among the most significant artifacts of Kingston and the nation’s history. It is a massive shame it has become what it has.

Slave cemeteries: Where did all the dead go?

slave cemetery - papine
Evidence of a slavery-era burial ground in Jamaica, discovered at a University of the West Indies construction site (photo courtesy of UWI, Mona)

Reports in March this year that a slavery-era cemetery was discovered in the parish of St. Elizabeth in Jamaica with the grave of a Manley progenitor (the Manleys have been the leading political family in Jamaica) begs the question: Whatever happened to all those graves where the enslaved were buried?

Since at least the 18th century, Jamaica had far more black enslaved persons than any other group. Yet there are precious few known burial grounds for the enslaved. The answer is simple. Enslaved persons were interred in unmarked graves, and many of those sites remain unknown.

Matters were compounded by high mortality rates of enslaved children, whose small graves would be easily lost and missed. Kenneth Kiple in The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History, cited H. Orlando Patterson’s finding that “Jamaican slave mortality in the under four-year-old age group [was] excessive.”

It’s a pity these gravesites are unaccounted for, because they are part of the history of a people. They are a rich source of information and an eye into the past.

We occasionally get hints here and there as to the location of these cemeteries.

The most well-known enslaved burial site in Jamaica is at Seville in St. Ann, the first Spanish capital on the island. In the January 2003 edition of the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Douglas Armstrong and Mark Fleischman wrote:

Four burials were excavated from discrete house-yard compounds in an eighteenth century African Jamaican slave settlement at Seville plantation. Though only four in number, these individuals provide significant information on burial practices and physical conditions within a clearly defined African Jamaican community. The analysis of material remains illuminate living conditions and social relations within the African Jamaican community. Each individual was interred within a separate house-yard and with a unique set of artifacts that yield information about their unique identities and positions within the Seville community.

One of the more interesting stories was connected with one of the “Spanish hotels” built a few years ago in St. Ann. The hotel experienced various setbacks, including injury and death of workmen on the construction site. Reports were that the hotel was being built on an old burial ground for slaves and the spirits were making their displeasure known. It was alleged that assistance was sought from the parish of St. Thomas to quell the spirits, and when that failed, further help was sought from Haiti. Chickens and goats were sacrificed and blood sprinkled. Whether that helped is not clear, though other incidents occurred.

Linton Gordon wrote an article in the North Coast Times that made my breath come up short:

There is, in Walkerswood, Saint Ann, a burial site where slaves were buried. The site is known as “Niggerhouse” …. During slavery, the plantation owners in Walkerswood would bury the slaves who died by whatever cause at this location…this is where the slave masters “tassed weh” the bodies of slaves.

I grew up on the Mount Plenty property in St. Ann, which had Walkerswood as its official district. On the property, in between the great house and the house where the headman’s family lived, was a large plot that everybody called Nigger House. It never occurred to us what the name referred to. None of us ever queried as to why it had the name. No one in Orange Hall, the adjoining village, as far as I’m aware, questioned it. Our lack of curiosity then boggles me now.

Based on Gordon’s reference to this Niggerhouse (that’s his spelling) in Walkerswood, it appears that this piece of ground at Mount Plenty with the same name was either the location where the enslaved lived, where they were buried, or both. I estimate it to be much too large for a burial ground. It was unlikely the owners would have given such a large piece of land just to bury slaves. Besides, the plot is strategically placed so that those at the great house, which sits on top of a hill, could easily see what was going on below. It was next to the headman’s house, likely the house of the overseer in the past, who would be in close touch with anything happening. So my guess is that it consisted mainly of dwellings with a burial spot included. It is chilling that I may have been walking over graves for those many years as a child without knowing it.

Researching slave cemeteries
The likely locations of other slave burial grounds are on estates and plantations, just like Mount Plenty and Seville. Many of these properties no longer exist as they have long been broken up and sold off. For even those still intact, current owners are likely ignorant of the existence or whereabouts of these burial grounds, and if they do, they have no incentive to preserve such locations.

Richard Dunn, in reference to the old Mesopotamia Estate in the parish of Westmoreland, said “it would take a team of archeologists many months to uncover the site of the slave village and the slave cemetery.” Yet he pointed out that there was much evidence of life and activities on the estate as records were meticulously kept, including a count of the number of enslaved persons on the estate.

A team of archeologists conducted geophysical tests at a slave cemetery at Marshall’s Pen in Mandeville.  “Marshall’s Pen preserves the remnants of a slave village including house foundations, refuse pits and a cemetery,” says a joint paper by several scholars in the United States. The team sought “to determine the approximate locations of subsurface graves,” and “the parameters of the burial grounds (marked and unmarked) so that they may be studied and preserved.”

While some of the results were inconclusive, “several graves in the cemetery are covered with cut limestone blocks, others are covered by piles of uncut rock, and there may still be others that are unmarked.” The study, which included researchers from Colorado College, Pomona College in California, University of Texas-El Paso and University of Minnesota-Morris, detected evidence of water in the graves, which affected accurate readings.

A cemetery was discovered in 2012 at Mona, in St. Andrew, “on lands once associated with the Papine estate.” An article on the unexpected discovery by a construction supervisor for the University of the West Indies (UWI) showed uncertainty of the type of cemetery it was:

[W]hile the bones may belong to enslaved persons who lived and worked on the Papine estate, one also has to bear in mind that they could very well be those of free labourers who continued to live on the property in the decades following the abolition of slavery, or the occupants of the Overseer’s house, which is known to have been located close to the area of the find.

The Marshall Pen archeological tests and the discovery at Mona demonstrate how difficult it is to identify and verify burial grounds of enslaved persons, making it likely these will forever be lost to history. In the case of UWI, the 2012 discovery suggests that part of the institution, like so many others, is built over the resting place of the dead.

African American burial grounds

african american cemetery-alexandria
Entrance to the Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia in the United States

Similar neglect of slavery-era and post-slavery cemeteries also occur in the United States, but some efforts are being made to have these preserved. In Alexandria, Virginia, where I live, we drove past an overgrown lot for a number of years until, in 2014, we saw work being done on the site. Thinking it was a new building construction project, we were surprised, when the work was done, to learn it was a 19th century cemetery for African Americans, with the unusual name, Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery. We see no headstones on this site, just the newly built memorial, while on the other side of the road, directly opposite, is another cemetery kept in pristine condition and populated by majestic headstones. We didn’t have to ask who was buried there.

In January this year, the New York Public Library reported on the discovery of “The Harlem Burial Ground,” a previously unknown cemetery where African Americans were likely buried centuries ago. This was in addition to another such burial ground that was found several months earlier:

Another African Burial Ground was officially “discovered” in New York City a few days ago. Over 140 bones, bone fragments and a skull were recovered last summer at the 126th Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus depot in East Harlem, and preliminary analysis announced on January 20 shows that the skull most likely belonged to a woman of African descent.

The article went on to state:

The story of the Harlem Burial Ground began in 1658 when Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered enslaved Africans to build a nine-mile road from lower Manhattan to the city known then as Nieuw Haarlem. Seven years later the residents erected the First Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem (future Elmendorf Reformed Church) at First Avenue and 127th Street and a quarter acre of land was reserved for a “Negro Burying Ground.”

Free and enslaved African Americans were buried there through the mid-19th century; however, in 1853, the land was offered to the highest bidder and sold for $3,000. A casino, and later film studios, were erected on the site before it was ceded to the MTA.

In “Black Deaths Matter,” an October 2015 article in The Nation magazine, Seth Freed Wessler pointed out that Jim Crow laws in the US affected not just the living, but the dead as well. Not only were there enforced racial boundaries in towns and cities between black and white residents, there were enforced boundaries between the dead. Even though Jim Crow is supposedly dead, African American cemeteries, both those used during and after slavery are, for the most part, in bad condition due to a differential in resources to preserve these burial sites. In many parts of the US, “the white one (cemetery) is in fine shape—the black one is not,” a concerned African American told Wessler. This is primarily because “memorials to white lives are left in trust, padded with private and public wealth [while] collective memorials to black lives fall into the red financially and slip from view.”

It is similarly so in Jamaica with regard to the graves of the enslaved. They were never meant to be a memorial in the first instance, and so it has remained.

The Jamaica-Irish connection

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Diseases and pestilences

Who of us who lived through early 1980s Jamaica can forget the stir caused by Michigan and Smiley’s song, Diseases, released just before a polio outbreak in the country?

Min’ Jah lick yu wid diseases
The most dangerous diseases
I’m talking like the elephantitis
The other one is the poliomyelitis
Arthritis and the one diabetes.

Some regarded the song as prescient, even prophetic. Thankfully, the spread of polio was controlled through the quick and authoritative action of the health authorities.

As an island with multiple entry points, Jamaica has always been susceptible to the possible “importation” of diseases and epidemics. The country, therefore, has become highly sensitive and edgy even at the mere threat of diseases and outbreaks.

A few years ago, a young immigration officer at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay got testy with me after I declared, as required, that I had been to Haiti just several weeks before. Haiti, at the time, suffered from a cholera outbreak.

After I protested her decision that I go through a health screening before being granted entry into the country, she blurted out so that all within earshot could hear, “You wan’ go Haiti and bring cholera inna di country!”

This sensitivity to the entry of diseases goes way back. In earlier centuries, the main concerns were over cholera and yellow fever.  The publication, Jamaica in 1896: Handbook of Information, said “Asiatic Cholera visited the island” in 1850. “The deaths were estimated at 32,000.” This was out of a population of roughly 400,000, according to John Bigelow in his book, Jamaica in 1850, originally published in 1851.

In 1852, medical doctor John Parkin wrote an extensive 82-page Statistical Report of The Epidemic Cholera In Jamaica in which he, among other things, said the disease, “in the course of a few months, decimated the Island of Jamaica.”

Parkin’s report stated:

The Epidemic Cholera, as is well known, commenced in the Island of Jamaica, at Port Royal, on the 8th of October, 1851, and, in a few weeks, carried off a third of the population. It had been prevailing at Chagres, and on the Isthmus of Panama, for some time previously; and it was stated, that the disease had been imported into this Island by one of the American steamers, which touch here on their voyage from the above port to New York.

He said “the disease soon spread to Kingston, on the opposite side of the bay carrying off 6,000 out of a population of 40,000” after which it “spread with unusual rapidity to other parts of the Island.”

One is left to conjecture if Jamaica in 1896, published by the Institute of Jamaica, which said the cholera outbreak was in 1850, and Parkin’s book, which said it happened in 1851, referred to the same outbreak or whether there were two just a year, or even a few months apart.

A debate in the parliament of Britain in June 1852 put a different spin on what transpired in the colony. “Affairs in Jamaica were now looking so awfully ruinous, and prospects so mournfully distressing,” a parliamentarian and Jamaican plantation owner stated. Based on remarks made in that session, the cholera epidemic occurred in 1851 and a smallpox outbreak happened in 1852: “The successive and calamitous dispensations of Providence—the ravages of the cholera last year [1851], and of the small-pox this year [1852], bade fair to deprive the colonists of the legitimate stock of labour to which they were entitled.”

It would be helpful that a historian with a handle on the facts explain the obvious discrepancies in the records.

It appears the Jamaican Assembly was tardy, perhaps even uninterested in providing assistance to help those affected by the outbreaks. Sir George Grey, speaking in the British parliament on July 7, 1854, expressed regret that “the House of Assembly at Jamaica had declined to provide the funds for sending the requisite medical and other assistance” while, at the same time, failing to make requests of the British government for assistance.

Remains of the Naval Hospital in Port Royal, rebuilt 1818 - 2
Remains of the Old Naval Hospital in Port Royal, rebuilt in 1818. Port Royal was one of the main entry points for diseases into Jamaica. (Photo courtesy of UDC).

Much of what we learn of the action taken during outbreaks came from reports made by United States consul officers in Jamaica, who made regular dispatches to the State Department in the US. For some reason, Port Royal appeared to be ground zero for entry of diseases into the country. A dispatch from Kingston on April 1, 1901, by Ethelbert Watts, US Consul, read, “I have the honor to report that a few days ago I learned incidentally from a friend that several cases of yellow fever existed at Port Royal, this island, and in consequence the white troops stationed there were ordered up the hills.”

Just about a year later, on March 6, 1902, Consul William B. Sorsby wrote to the US Assistant Secretary of State that “there were several cases of yellow fever at Port Royal” and that “the superintendent of the island medical office who told me that three cases of yellow fever had developed in the barracks among the troops at Port Royal.” Once again, “the troops had immediately been sent to the mountain.”

The constant threat of cholera, yellow fever and other infections eventually led authorities to take decisive action to prevent disease entering into the colony. Threat levels seemed to have been high early in the twentieth century. On July 6, 1903, a commercial agent in Port Antonio said “ships arriving from Philadelphia are now detained by quarantine on account of smallpox.” US Vice-Consul Orrett reported on August 9, 1905, “by an official publication the governor of this island has declared New Orleans is, as well as the Republic of Panama (including the Canal Zone), to be infected places within the meaning of the quarantine laws, in view of the prevalence of yellow fever in those respective places.”

In an August 2, 1911, report, a Dr. Geddes mentioned the “measures against importation of cholera” into Jamaica. He said “the port quarantine authorities have decided that all vessels arriving from New York must, before coming alongside their piers, pump out all water that may be in any part of the vessel.”

US Consul Dreher reported on June 28, 1912, “that strict quarantine regulations have been established by the Government of Jamaica against Porto Rico on account of the outbreak of bubonic plague in that island. During this quarantine no vessel from Porto Rico will be allowed to land at any port in the island of Jamaica.” Dreher, in an update in August of that year, reported from Port Antonio “that the quarantine regulations put in force against arrivals from Porto Rico have been extended to apply to vessels coming from Cuba.”

During the SARS scare in China in 2002 and that of the global fear over swine flu in 2009, Jamaica was placed on high alert. The country battled the outbreak of the Chikungunya virus in 2014 and it now faces the threat of the Zika virus. With all this happening, we are reminded that the fear of outbreaks and infestation is nothing new. It goes back centuries.

Fire! Fire!! Fire!!!

A section of Kingston after the 1907 earthquake and fire (Public domain)

This past week’s fire at Wisynco, one of the largest private companies in Jamaica, and the March 2015 Riverton fire in Kingston that raged for days, causing millions of dollars in damage, remind us that fires are a constant threat. A good number of fires affected the island, especially Kingston and Port Royal, in earlier centuries.

The most well-known fire in Jamaica’s history raged after the January 14, 1907, earthquake that devastated large parts of Kingston. J.F. Wilson, writing in 1910, reported that “ten minutes after the first [earthquake] shock, flames burst out in the ruins and raged for three hours before any efforts were made to check them.”

He said “among the distressing features of the entire disaster was the burning of the Military hospital in which 40 soldiers were burned to death before any effort could be made to save them.” It appeared aftershocks and fire happened simultaneously. “A second, third, fourth and fifth shock followed in close succession. By this time flames had broken out in six different sections of the town and began eating their way through the ruins, and many people were roasted alive. Their cries could be heard above the roar of the flames. Pandemonium reigned supreme.”

The 1907 fire and quake left an indelible mark on Jamaica’s capital for years, accounting for the death of about 800 persons. But this was not the first. The first known major fire to strike Kingston was in 1780. The town “was severely stricken by a great fire which broke out at about 2 o’clock in the morning of the 16th May and continued until the following evening,” so said early editions of the Handbook of Jamaica, first published in the late 19th century. “The large and closely built portion of the town lying between King and Orange Streets was burnt down, the destruction of property being estimated at £30,000,” or £1.9 million in today’s currency.

At least three significant fires occurred in the 19th century, roughly 20 years apart. On August 26, 1843, fire “devastated a large portion of the city…. Many of the best dwellings and much valuable property were consumed and a large number of persons were left in utter destitution.”

Another occurred in March 1862, “by which the commercial division of the city was devastated,” including “nineteen of the principal stores in Harbour and Port Royal Streets, three wharves, and the extensive and well-built three storied house in which the Commercial Hotel was kept.” Damage was £90,830 or £4 million today.

Kingston fire 1882
An artistic overview  of Kingston after the 1882 fire (Courtesy of

On December 11, 1882, “a calamitous fire occurred in Kingston… by which the greater part of the business portion of the town was destroyed, much valuable property consumed and great distress occasioned to the poorer classes,” the Handbook of Jamaica recounted. An eyewitness, Pursey Coffey, alleged the fire started “in Feurtardo’s lumber-yard on Port Royal Street.”

The fire seemed to have benefited from strong wind. The New York Times on December 22 reported that “the flames seemed to spread with great rapidity. The wind was blowing from seaward at the time, and burning pieces of wood were carried up in the air and distributed in all directions to leeward.” After a lull in the wind, it “then changed into a strong land breeze” that “drove the flames down toward the water’s edge.” This was significant as a large segment of the town had gathered on the wharves to escape the flames, but the fire followed them. Hundreds were saved by ships docked in the bay.

At least 12 persons were known to have died. Some 689 houses were severely damaged or destroyed affecting some 6,000 persons. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, situated on Princess Street (more about the Jews in Jamaica in a future blog post), lost everything with the “exception of one register book of Births, Marriages and Deaths.”

Estimates of the damage varied. The Handbook of Jamaica and other sources reported the damage at between £160,000 and £200,000 or £7.7 million to £9.7 million in today’s currency. The New York Times put it at £2.5 million or more than £120 million at current rates. This is a massive discrepancy. In any case, the 1882 fire was far worse than those in either 1843 or 1862. Then, within another 25 years, earthquake and another fire devastated the city.

Port Royal, that much beleaguered town, had a major fire in 1703, believed to have begun in “crowded warehouses where a quantity of gunpowder was deposited.” This fire, occurring just over 10 years since the massive 1692 earthquake that destroyed much of that town, led to mass evacuation. It appears the 1703 Port Royal fire was the catalyst, following on the earthquake there earlier, for Kingston becoming the urban center it is today, as “the disheartened inhabitants went in large numbers to Kingston.” The Jamaica Assembly provided generous terms to colonialists who relocated to Kingston, providing tax free land and residency for up to seven years and mandating that St. Andrew owners of slaves provide labor for the building project to house the evacuees.

Yet other Port Royal fires took place in 1728 and on July 13, 1816, the latter at about midday, “which in a few hours destroyed nearly the whole place, including the naval hospital; and left many of the inhabitants utterly destitute.”

With so many fires occurring in Kingston and Port Royal and elsewhere across the island, it is not surprising that insurance companies took an early foothold in Jamaica. Jamaica’s governor, John Peter Grant, was patron in the founding of the Jamaica Cooperative Fire Insurance Company in 1873. “The Company was formed with the object of reducing the rates of Fire Insurance in this island and of retaining in the island the large amount of money annually sent away as premiums,” the Handbook recorded. It appears activities in the fire insurance market was hectic indeed. By the early 20th century there were about 25 local agents for overseas insurers.

Other towns such as Savanna-la-Mar in 1779 and Montego Bay in 1795 and 1808 were devastated by fires. Several reasons accounted for why so many fires happened back then and why these fires caused so much loss and damage – overcrowding, population density, fragile structures, the presence of flammable and volatile materials in high population areas and in commercial centers, lack of emergency response personnel and equipment, poor training, etc.

The Wisynco fire last week and the costly March 2015 Riverton fires remind us of destructive fires of the past.  As a Wisynco manager promised, the company will bounce back; in the same way the city of Kingston and other towns rose from the ashes many times before.