Jamaican People - The Races Behind the Faces
Updated: Jul 19
Jamaican People; Jamaican Heritage; Jamaican History
Our rich Jamaican heritage is depicted by our motto "Out of Many One People." Here in Jamaica people have black skin, white skin, what we call red skin, and shades of brown skin. As for our hair - it may be kinky, straight, or curly! Although 90% of our population is classified as black, it is unlikely that more than a small percentage is of pure African ancestry. There is no one physical feature that can define us as Jamaican, although the way we talk and move is usually a clue. Our national motto is also a tribute to the unity of the different cultural minorities inhabiting the nation.
Although over 90% of our population is comprised of individuals of African descent, the contribution of other ethnic groups such as the Indians, the Chinese, the Germans, the Jews, and the Syrians/Lebanese to the social and economic development of the country is significant.
The Arawaks arrived about the year 800, settling throughout the island. Most of them settled on the coasts and near rivers as they fished to get food. They came from South America and named the island Xaymaca, which meant “Land of Wood and Water."
The Arawaks were a mild and simple people by nature. Physically, they were light brown in color, short, and well-shaped with coarse, black hair. Their faces were broad and their noses flat. The group of Arawak-speaking people who lived on the island of Jamaica were the Taino Indians.
The Arawaks led quiet and peaceful lives until they were destroyed by the Spaniards. Very few descendants of Tainos remain on the island today.
On May 5, 1494, Christopher Columbus, the European explorer, who sailed west to get to the East Indies came upon Jamaica. After Columbus claimed Jamaica for Spain, other Spanish settlers came to the island, starting in the early 16th century. They left behind Jamaican-born Spanish and mixed-race offspring when the British gained control of the island in the mid-17th century.
The island remained poor under Spanish rule as few Spaniards settled here. Jamaica served mainly as a supply base. Towns were little more than settlements. The only town that was developed was Spanish Town, the old capital of Jamaica, then called St. Jago de la Vega. It was the center of government and trade and had many churches and convents.
In 1655 Jamaica was wrested from the Spanish by the British. Most of the early British settlers were English, who set up large sugar and other plantations. Throughout slavery and afterwards, the British (mainly the men) produced children with the black population.
England gained formal possession of Jamaica from Spain in 1670 through the Treaty of Madrid. As there was no longer a need for constant defence against Spanish attack, planting of crops began.
Many former Spanish slaves used the Anglo-Spanish war as a chance to free themselves and fled into the mountainous and forested regions of the colony to join the ranks of surviving Tainos. As interracial marriage became prevalent, the two racial groups underwent assimilation. The escaped slaves and their descendants, known as the Jamaican Maroons, were the source of many disturbances in the colony, raiding plantations and occupying parts of the island's interior.
The British controlled the land until 1962. They built their kingdom on sugar cultivated by African labor. They also exported rum and molasses that were traded for flour, pork, and pickled fish.
The first Africans arrived in Jamaica in 1513 as servants to the Spanish settlers. With the advent of the Sugar Revolution, there was an acute labor shortage. This need was met by large scale importation of enslaved Africans. Later, slaves were imported from West Africa. Many of these Africans mixed with the Tainos and Spanish to produce mixed race children.
These Africans were freed by the Spanish when the English captured the island in 1655. They immediately fled to the mountains where they fought to retain their freedom and became the first Maroons.
The abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 did not mean that people of African origin no longer came to the island. In fact, during the apprenticeship period (1834-1838) and in 1839, several persons of African descent came to Jamaica as free laborers. Also, in the following 25 years, about 10,000 free laborers of African origin came to the island.
The chief survivals of African culture are said to be in the parishes which had the largest number of these voluntary workers. For example, the kumina ritual of St. Thomas is one of the best-known surviving rituals.
The British slave trade officially ended in 1807, making the buying and selling of slaves from Africa illegal. Slavery, however had not ended. It was not until 1st August 1834 that slavery ended in the British Caribbean following legislation passed the previous year. This was followed by a period of apprenticeship with freedom coming in 1838.
The East Indians are the largest ethnic minority in Jamaica. They arrived as indentured laborers between 1845 and 1917. The East Indians came to Jamaica to earn a "fortune" to start a better life back in India.
At the end of the indentureship contract, many East Indians reverted to their ancestral occupations. Some became farmers or fishermen, while others returned to the trades - barber, goldsmith, and ironsmith. Some became money lenders.
The East Indians introduced several plants and trees in Jamaica, the most common being betel leaves, betel nut, coolie plum, mango, jackfruit, and tamarind. The food habits of East Indians have a distinctly East Indian flavor and taste. A typical East Indian dinner consists of curried goat, roti, pulses usually cooked with mangoes, curried potato, eggplant, bitter gourd and okra.
Jamaica's first Chinese immigrants arrived in 1854, as indentured workers. These first immigrants were all male. Although some Chinese went back home to marry Chinese wives who they brought back to Jamaica, others inter-married with non-Chinese Jamaicans contributing to the island's racial mixture.
The Chinese were brought to work on the sugar estates following the emancipation of the slaves. However, they disliked the nature of the work and soon left the estates and set up businesses, making their mark as the "Chiney Shop" which became a fixture throughout the island. Eventually they were able to develop their businesses until the small grocery shops grew into large enterprises embracing not only retailing, but also wholesaling and other types of activities.
Other free immigrants came in the 20th century, also establishing businesses. They too have mixed with white, Indian and black. With widespread immigration to North America in the 1970's, Chinese formed less than 1/2% of the Jamaican population in 1991. In the 21st century, a fresh wave of Chinese has been coming directly from China, and the “Chiney Shop” is on the rise again across the island.
The Chinese represent a small proportion of the Jamaican population, nevertheless, their impact has been great particularly in the area of commerce. Apart from the development of commerce, the popularity of Chinese food among Jamaicans is a lasting contribution to the island.
The Germans came as indentured laborers. After emancipation, the Colonial Government of Jamaica adopted a program of settling European peasants in the island. It was hoped that they would create a thriving settlement and act as a model for the ex-slaves. It was also hoped that if the hills were settled by Europeans, the ex-slaves would continue to work on the large estates. The program was never a success.
Between the years 1834 and 1838 about 1,210 German immigrants arrived in the island. They were small trades people, a few farmers, and disbanded soldiers of light calvary regiment. In 1835, Lord Seaford gave 500 acres of his 10,000-acre estate in Westmoreland for the Seaford Town German settlement. Initially over 200 German immigrants settled in Seaford Town in Westmoreland.
To survive, the German settlers had to learn how to plant ground provisions and to speak patois. Presently, no German is spoken except for a few words known and used only by old people. A few German names such as Hacker, Eldemire, Wedemire, Grosskoph, Kleinhans and Schleifer, which have undergone slight spelling changes, have survived.
The first Jews came to the island during the Spanish occupation of the island, 1494 - 1655. These Jews came from Spain and Portugal. They fled because of the Spanish inquisition. To conceal their identity they referred to themselves as "Portuguese" and practiced their religion secretly.
At the time of the British conquest of the island in 1655, General Venables recorded the presence of many "Portuguese" in Jamaica. The Jews were allowed to remain after the conquest and began to practice their religion openly. The Jews were granted British citizenship by Cromwell and this was confirmed in 1660 by King Charles. They attained full political rights in 1831. The status of British citizenship enabled ownership of property by the Jews.
Jamaica's Jewish population was never large. However, their contribution to the economic and commercial life of the nation outstripped that of any other group of comparable size in Jamaica.
Lebanese and Syrians came to Jamaica in the late 19th century. The majority came from Lebanon, the others were from Damascus in Syria and from Bethlehem in Palestine. They established themselves as merchants of clothing, textiles, and other dry goods. Many of them started out by roving around the country carrying their goods on their backs. Descendants of these immigrants, though few, have contributed significantly to the development of trade and commerce in Jamaica. The early generations would often send back to their homelands to find wives. Later generations have mixed with the wider Jamaican population.
Turkish oppression was given as the main reason for the departure from the Middle East. When these immigrants arrived in Jamaica, many of them went into cultivating bananas or buying and selling. Many of these immigrants eventually gave up the banana business and went into retail trading since hurricanes often upset the banana industry.
Despite being a small percentage of the Jamaican population, this group has played a significant role in the commercial and industrial development of the economy. Through their influence as well, Syrian bread has become immensely popular among Jamaicans.
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An editor/writer with years of writing experience running the gamut from blogging to report writing. She lives in Kingston, Jamaica and is the chief writer for the Jamaica So Nice Blog. She is a trained engineer and musician and loves to see people transformed through her work.