The critical role of Jamaican migration


Sunday, February 11, 2018

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Population pressure has been a persistent problem since emancipation. It is the insidious base of Jamaica's greatest obstacle — unemployment.

On August 1, 1838, Emancipation Day, 310,000 enslaved men, women (and children) were freed. This mass introduction into the labour force precipitated a problem which was new and hitherto unknown to the Jamaican economy: a huge surplus of unemployed labour. Suddenly, substantial openings or opportunities were needed for an excessive number of workers without skills — in effect, a problem akin to overpopulation, or mass unemployment.

Many turned to cultivating small parcels of land made available in free villages from properties purchased largely by churches for the settlement of former slaves. Some “captured” Crown lands in the hills, others purchased land from their former estates, usually poor land at high cost. Still others, in desperation, returned to the estates to work for starvation wages and provision of insubstantial housing.

The situation became more desperate as the British Government, in its own interests, passed a Sugar Duties Equalisation Act in 1846 removing the preferential tariff which protected West Indian sugar from imports of cheaper sugar against Brazil and elsewhere. The sugar industry, the mainstay of employment, began to collapse and the jobless workforce of surplus labour faced destitution. Conditions became even more desperate when 5,000 perished in a cholera epidemic in 1850.

By 1865 an economic depression, a prolonged drought, and rising prices created an explosive situation within the island. Deepening distress among former slaves within the colony reached a breaking point and there seemed to be little hope.

Deacon Paul Bogle of the Native Baptist Church in Stony Gut, a small village in the parish of St Thomas, eventually decided to lead a group of men to petition Governor Edward Eyre in the island's capital, Spanish Town, 45 miles away, to draw attention to the growing distress. Governor Eyre would not see them. This rebuff led to growing desperation which could be easily ignited.

It was an unrelated matter that provided the ignition: a case at the Morant Bay Court -house in which Bogle had an interest. Bogle attended with a following of supporters. His matter was heard without disruption. But in a previous case, a boy who was being apprehended by the police escaped with the assistance of Bogle's followers. This led to warrants being issued for Bogle and 27 others to be arrested for assaulting the police and resisting arrest.

Clinton Black, in his most informative, concise History of Jamaica, gives an account of the first act that later escalated to become the Morant Bay Rebellion. When the police arrived in Stony Gut three days later, they were overcome, mocked and terrorised by the villagers, but later set free. The next day Bogle and his men set off for Morant Bay. There rioting broke out when some gunfire started. The custos of St Thomas, Baron von Kettleworth, read the Riot Act. Volunteers drawn up before the courthouse opened fire. They were overpowered. Morant Bay was overrun by rioters.

When word of the rebellion reached Eyre, the warships Wolverine and Onyx were dispatched from Kingston with soldiers from Newcastle. The rioters, with the aid of native Maroons, were captured, summarily “tried”, convicted and sentenced to hang. Their bodies were dumped in a trench behind the courthouse.

Black records that “430 men and women were either shot down or executed by sentence of court martial; some 600, including women, flogged and more than 1,000 homes and cottages destroyed”.

The Morant Bay Rebellion came to a barbaric end. But it marked another episode in the story of a new Jamaica:

* A Royal Commission of Enquiry was established which resulted in the dismissal of Eyre, who was recalled to England in disgrace;

* Jamaica was reverted to Crown Colony status, a system of government with direct rule from Britain, ridding the people of the oppressive Jamaican Government led by planters who ruled in their own interests.

But most of all, Jamaicans realised that there would be no response to their plight. In the words of the Queen's letter — a response from Queen Victoria to an earlier petition to her people in the parish of St Ann seeking land — “it was from their own efforts and wisdom that they must look for an improvement in their condition”.

From this response, in which many saw the hand of Eyre, and from the rebuff by Eyre himself, Jamaicans realised that with no work at home they must seek work abroad. Thus began the endless path of emigration beckoning Jamaicans to seek work across the sea.

Waves of migration occurred, commencing in the 1860s and continuing for nearly 150 years to the present. Jamaicans travelled far and wide, establishing a claim to being one of the most travelled people. These travels were to seek greener pastures elsewhere in response to the failure of the Jamaican economy to provide sufficient jobs for Jamaicans at home.

Jobs within the region were available. The banana plantations of Central American countries beckoned and Jamaicans responded in growing numbers. One of the most monumental engineering projects in history was undertaken in 1880 to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, then a state in New Granada, as Colombia was known. The canal would allow access to ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and vice versa, considerably shortening the long, rough and treacherous journey around the tip of South America, since it would link its Pacific and Atlantic coasts by a much shorter, easier and more economical route, particularly for American trade between east and west coast.

The project was undertaken by a French company, which began operations in 1881. By 1904 the project was failing, causing the United States to purchase it. With greater financing and effort, the project then proceeded to completion in 1914.

Despite the jungle and the perils of thousands of deaths from fever and other hazards to health, the primitive conditions of life, discrimination in pay and other degrading conditions, thousands of Jamaicans flocked to Panama for work, beginning in 1881. Many could not tolerate the hazardous and debilitating conditions and returned home, but in the end, 24,000 Jamaicans remained to create a thriving, permanent Jamaican community (Gisele Eisner, 1961).

After 1914 when the Panama Canal was completed, work opportunities ended. So too did the work on the banana plantations of Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua, which had been in progress since the 1870s employing 60,000 field workers from Jamaica. We do not know how many remained after Panama Disease nearly wiped out those plantations, but there exists today thriving and sizeable permanent Jamaican communities: Boca del Toro in Panama, Port Limon in Costa Rica, and Bluefields in Nicaragua, among others.

This led to the next phase of migration, to Cuba, to harvest sugar cane to meet the surging demand for sugar during World War I. 80,000 Jamaicans made the short trip to Cuba to work on the sugar plantations. In fact, more than some 25,000 Jamaican women joined the men, working mostly as domestic helpers. After 1921, the sugar industry in Cuba declined precipitously due to the collapse of the price of sugar in the post-World War I period. This created great unemployment which led to competition for work between Cubans and Jamaicans. Relations grew sour and levels of hostility almost became a diplomatic problem. Many thousands of Jamaicans had to return home. But, thousands decided to stay in Cuba establishing Jamaican settlements, despite the hostile conditions. By 1930, 60,000 Jamaicans were estimated to be living permanently in Cuba, establishing vibrant Jamaican-Cuban communities (Gisele Eisner, 1961).

America, land of dreams to be fulfilled, was another venue for intrepid Jamaicans ceaselessly seeking employment. From 1913, Jamaicans refocused their migration to America. Many thousands emigrated to the north eastern states. This wave was discontinued by the Immigration Law of 1924 which prohibited further non-white immigrants to the United States.

The onset of the Great Depression in America, commencing in 1929, and the resulting severe downturn in world trade badly hurt the Jamaican economy. This was particularly so in the agricultural sector which was contributing 50 per cent of the production value of the economy at that time. With the closure of the migration outlets in America and Cuba and the shattering economic depression, the foundation was laid for the labour upheavals in 1938, when riots broke out across the country because of lack of employment, depressing conditions and poor rates of pay.

By the 1940s Jamaicans were on the go again, responding to the domestic need for manpower in the USA and UK. Many were recruited to fill the gaps in fields, public works and factories left by American men after their recruitment into military service during World War II. This, however, was not a major movement. Many, though, trekked to north east America, mostly in the Connecticut region, where they settled and became valued citizens of the Hartford community, eventually holding high civic and political posts.

The 1930s saw a very substantial increase in the Jamaican population because of the return of migrants from Cuba and Central America — Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua — which were also suffering from the impact of the American depression.

Later, it was the United Kingdom, the “mother land”, recovering from the loss of men in World War II. The resultant labour shortage created a need for skilled workers like nurses, and workers who would accept jobs, like street cleaners, which jobs British people were not available or willing to accept.

Jamaicans responded with the first batch of emigrants on board the Empire Windrush in 1947. These were mostly nurses. But the real mass movement began in 1955. For the better part of the decade they emigrated to a land of inhospitable climate and, to a certain extent, inhospitable people who needed them but did not want them. But they continued to go.

Between 1952 and 1962, a total of 165,000 Jamaicans migrated to the United Kingdom. They became the dominant ethnic migrant group from the West Indies, so much so that all black persons, in some parts of England, were generically referred to as Jamaicans, regardless of their country of origin. The huge Jamaican community in Britain became one of the largest overseas settlements of Jamaicans. Many success stories surround their lives, notwithstanding the adversities and failures which they faced in Britain.

The UK trek of migration was suddenly curtailed in 1962, leaving many thousands of unemployed at home who could no longer be accommodated with jobs. Again, Jamaicans were not prepared to sit and wait for better opportunities at home. There was a refocus of direction in the 1960s to the USA and Canada. This wave commenced slowly at first, and then picked up into the next decade, the 1970s, during which another flow of migrants occurred.

Some 175,000 persons migrated to the United States between 1970 and 1980, about 50,000 of them dependents. This figure speaks to quantity. But the quality of the emigration was of particular concern. A total of 16,100 professionals, technical, managerial, skilled and semi-skilled members of the labour force migrated between 1977 and 1980. This was the equivalent of an estimated 60 per cent of the output of universities and other institutions of higher learning and those trained in various skills.

Migration since then has continued on a steady basis. This allowed the migration valve to continue to reduce unemployment pressure, without which the economy could very likely erupt as it did in the 1930s, the only decade without migration since the establishment of banana plantations in 1870 in Central America. Migration must therefore be an inescapable standing policy of all Jamaican governments.

This presentation has outlined the role of migration in depth but not exhaustively, to establish the extent to which it has played a critical role in attaining significant population control in Jamaica.

Strict attention should be paid to the alarm bells that would ring now if President Donald Trump of the United States implements his policy of cleansing the population of America. What would that mean for Jamaica which has one million Jamaicans in the United States? If 20 per cent are compulsorily returned, are we prepared to find at least 100,000 additional jobs and housing? This is unthinkable. So what should be our call? The Statue of Liberty holds out the promise:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Are we to believe now that this inspiring invitation will no longer exist in the land of the brave and the home of the free?

— Edward Seaga is a former prime minister of Jamaica, the chancellor of the University of Technology and is a distinguished fellow at t he University of the West Indies.




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