A Brief History of Ethnicity in Jamaica

Jamaica, a Caribbean island nation of about 3 million people, has a diverse set of ethnicities in its population. To begin to understand Jamaica’s ethnic configuration it’s prudent to start from the first known ethnic group to inhabit the island: the Arawaks, or as they are called amongst Latinos, the Tainos. The Arawaks farmed the land and lived peacefully. They were similar in appearance to the people we now know as the Native Americans of North America. Apart from periodic exploitation from another Caribbean native people, such as the Caribs, the Arawaks lived a comfortable life in Jamaica – far from the eyes of Europeans who had never yet set foot in that part of the world…but that was to change. In the 14th century an Italian seafarer named Christopher Columbus asked the then queen of Spain, Isabella, to fund his voyage to India to secure riches for her. India was relatively unknown to the Europeans at that time. Queen Isabella funded Columbus’ trip, including giving him three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Columbus set sail for India, but got lost and ended up in the Americas One of the many lands of the Americas that Columbus encountered was that which is now called Jamaica. Columbus came upon Jamaica from the north, in an area now called Discovery Bay – an incorrect honor to him, given that it is impossible for a human to ‘discover’ somewhere already inhabited by humans. He was welcomed by the Arawaks who greeted him and his crew with warmth and awe. However, he immediately set about dominating and exploiting them for pleasures and wealth. As the representative of Queen Isabella, Columbus established Spain as the first colonial power in Jamaica. Columbus did not find the precious metals he sought in Jamaica, but identified another way to secure wealth, by forcing the Arawaks to work as slaves in the fields producing high-value products such as sugar. This systematic slavery of the Arawaks, along with widespread rape, murder and the introduction of European diseases, eventually decimated the entire ethnic group. Christopher Columbus and his fellow Europeans had initiated one of the first of many genocides in the Americas. Spain expanded its presence in the Americas, including the Caribbean, exploiting the people and the lands and increasing their wealth in doing so. Other Europeans nations observed Spain increasing its wealth in the Americas and decided they should also get some of the pirated spoils. This led to centuries of competition and battles between the European nations to see which could most efficiently enslave the native peoples and exploit the lands for wealth. Spain, Holland, France, Portugal, England and other European imperialists viciously competed for the riches of the Americas. The competition eventually led to England attacking Spain to take over Jamaica. In 1655, British forces successfully defeated the Spanish in Jamaica and gained control over the island nation. Some of the Spaniards managed to escape and fled to other Spanish colonies in the Caribbean: primarily Cuba Africans From then Britain continued to import captured African peoples to work as slaves in order to maintain a vile profit-making enterprise on sugar plantations for more than three hundred years. England acquired great wealth at the expense of lifetimes of suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands of Africans in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. Throughout the hundreds of years of enslavement in Jamaica there was always resistance to slavery. Slavery in Jamaica was officially abolished in 1844. Jamaica remained heavily populated with former slaves who were the descendants of Africans of multiple ethnicities. Jews From the late 1400s through to the 1600s, Jews who were fleeing persecution mainly in Portugal and Spain relocated in Jamaica. Most of these Jews were of Caucasian pigmentation. To this day Jamaica has a very strong Jewish population. Lebanese Centuries ago, pioneering Lebanese people fleeing religious persecution in the Middle East also sought refuge through relocation in Jamaica. Jamaica’s Lebanese community is often also referred to as Syrian. The Lebanese community in Jamaica remains strong and vibrant to this day. Chinese and Indians At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century a great many indentured laborers were brought to Jamaica from Asia, mainly China and India. They came primarily to take advantage of economic opportunities associated with the increased demand for additional menial labor. Over many years, Jamaican Chinese and Indians evolved powerful communities that enriched industry and culture in Jamaican life. Rastafari Many Jamaican Rastas argue that Rastafari existed since “creation.” However, some scholars hold that the emergence of Rastafari in Jamaica occurred in the early 1930s, when Leonard Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley and others formed a community in an area called Pinnacle. Their community revered Haile Selassie of Ethiopia as the true God, promoted Africanism, and actively sought the liberation of the Black peoples of Jamaica from the continued oppression of British colonialists. Over decades the Rastafari ethnic group became a potent force of resistance to European colonial rule in Jamaica which was met with continuous violent suppression from the British. Nonetheless, Rastafari persevered and eventually became synonymous with Jamaica. British colonial rule, and its corresponding oppression, continued in Jamaica up to August, 6th, 1962, when, in realizing that it was no longer profitable to own Jamaica, England supposedly granted independence to Jamaica. From its independence, Jamaica created a national motto: “Out of Many One People” – that simultaneously celebrated ethnic diversity and promoted unity. Latinos Jamaica also has a formidable Latino community made up of people from Spanish speaking countries, mainly Cuba. During the 1970s then prime minister of Jamaica Michael Manley, espoused the political philosophy of Democratic Socialism, and while doing so formed an alliance with Cuba. As the years passed, with various global geo-political changes, it became easier for some Cubans to travel. As they did so many chose Jamaica as the nation to which they would relocate. Later, more people from other Spanish speaking countries settled in Jamaica. The Spanish speaking Jamaican community is generally not readily visible in the major affairs of the nation, but they are nonetheless an active and dynamic group from several Latin countries, and continue to grow in numbers and influence in Jamaica. Russians There is a relatively small but potent Russian presence in Jamaica. They too choose not to be too visible. Oh wait….there was a set of Russians in Jamaica that were quite visible, a group of women who were the dancers at a very popular upscale gentleman’s club. I had occasion to speak to a few of them and they informed me that Jamaica was great for them as it provided economic and social growth that they would not have been able to realize in Russia. However, apart from that situation, Russians in Jamaica prefer to be low-key, and generally blend in with other Caucasians in ways that make it virtually impossible to delineate them as a specific ethnic group – but they are very much there. Haitian Jamaica also has an active Haitian community. Many of these Haitians fled the hardships of Haiti and came to Jamaica for a better life. They too represent a community that is very much present but choose not to be too visible in the Jamaican public landscape. Muslim There is a also Muslim community in Jamaica. I must admit that I do not know much about the genesis or composition of Jamaican Muslims, except that they are there and apparently active. While I was a lecturer at the University of the West Indies I had a female student who happened to be Muslim. Her attire made it easy to broadly identify her ethnicity. However, while speaking to her I realized I was quite ignorant about Jamaica’s Muslim community. Jamaica indeed has Muslims who are quite active in their faith and culture, and proud of their nation. Japanese Over the past 20 years Jamaica has gained a steady influx of people from Japan. Many of these Japanese were introduced to Jamaica through the popular music culture of Reggae and Dancehall. While some Japanese have settled in Jamaica, their community doesn’t appear to be large. Nonetheless, there continues to be a slow increase in the Japanese presence in Jamaica, still primarily a consequence of their attraction to Jamaica’s music and dance culture. Jamaica, therefore, has a diverse population with ethnic connections that include West-African, British, Syrian, Lebanese, Jewish, Chinese, Indian, Rastafari, Muslim, Latino, Russian, Korean, Japanese, and others. However, despite this remarkable ethnic diversity it appears most Jamaican ethnic groups don’t know the others. Ethnic separation in Jamaica is very strong, particularly amongst the upper echelons of the socio-economic divisions of the society. In general, a few of the economically humble are more likely to mix. For example, financially depressed Jamaicans of Jewish descent living in western Jamaica such as the parish of St. Elizabeth, generally have no problem being with Jamaicans of other ethnic background. Also, Jamaicans of Indian and African descent also actively co-habit with each other. It is also largely understood that Jamaicans of African descent generally have no objection cohabiting with all the other Jamaican ethnicities….. if given the opportunity to do so. However, the higher the socio-economic level in Jamaica, the more we find ethnic separation. There appears to be some sort of positive correlation between increased wealth and increased ethnic separation in Jamaica. This ethnic separation is generally located within boundaries of social class. Scholars have addressed this “mix but don’t mingle” structure of social classes in Jamaica. However, perhaps we need to do more to understand why is it that as Jamaica continues to enrich its ethnic diversity there is a corollary increase in ethnic separation and inter-ethnic ignorance? Finally, it is important to note that despite the strong separation of ethnicities among the Jamaican people, with various forms of corresponding tensions between the groups, it is still remarkable that ethnic groups in Jamaica coexist free of violence.  The small amount of ethnic tensions in Jamaica are primarily ideological and not physical – and this is commendable when compared to the aggressive ethnic conflicts that exist in other parts of the world, including other Caribbean countries. Kingsley Ragashanti Stewart, Ph.D.        

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